A Confused Big Brother
The computerisation of Slovenian public administration dates back to the days when computers took floppy discs, couldn't sit on your lap without crushing it, and often had monitors with garish green text. It was the Statistical Office and the Internal Ministry that first jumped aboard the information technology bandwagon when, in the eighties, they used computers to maintain the register of cars and citizens.
From there, progress towards government computerisation was speedy. By 1988 the Republic Executive Council had adopted a plan for 'informatisation' of governmental institutions. The next year an 'advanced' computer system was introduced to many institutions including the financial ministry, customs and courts, while the statistics office still used most of the system's resources. By 1991 all state institutions along with basic courts were linked in a network. The same year, coinciding with national independence, the Information Institute was established along with the first internet connection in Slovenia, at the Jožef Štefan Science Institute. Another important milestone was the establishment of the Governmental Centre for Informatics in 1993 and, in the following year, the HKOM network (which is the communication backbone of governmental institutions).
While all this computerisation greatly improved the performance of state institutions, and their friendliness to citizens, the piecemeal approach to the process has caused problems. State administration can be seen as a collection of huge databases with the software for their manipulation. Either directly through websites, or through public servants, we interact with it on a daily basis. But, at the moment, making connections between those databases is troublesome.
The Ministry for Public Administration prides itself on a series of achievements which have had some effect on interoperability among different data sources. The new millennium saw the introduction of digital certificates as well as a major unification in architecture, boosting interoperatibility within e-government projects. These mechanisms had a lasting effect and contributed to an honourable second place in the 2007 European Commission rating of citizen friendly e-governments, as well as to the United Nations Publis Service Award for the Project Evem. Evem is the most advanced ICT project in Slovenia, "a landmark in the integration of complex inter-institutional administrative processes" as put by the Ministry. This business portal for entrepreneurs links the six largest systems in public administration.
The work is not complete, however. Recently an e-business strategy and action plan were adopted which aim to enhance the so-called horizontal functions in e-business. In addition, an interoperable portal is planned as a central spot for further improvements in the development and promotion of e-business. Technologically, there have been moves to standardised, reusable components, allowing for quicker and more reliable implementation and at the same time making ITCT infrastructure run better at lower costs. From 2001 on all projects are built on a multileveled and web technology, enabling the remote access through a browser and data exchange through web services.
Islands in the Data Stream
Marko Colnar, a secretary with the Ministry of Education and Sport who has devoted much of his effort as an IT expert to information systems of public administration, fears the progress is not enough. His main concern is the long lasting and multi-layered problem of an absence of common standards. E-government (e-uprava.si) might be a nicely arranged portal, but it leads to different data sources - tax office, customs, the land register - each with its own information system and differently structured database.
In the nineties, a Governmental Centre for Informatics oversaw the ministries and linked them horizontally, but it was disbanded. "Ministries went their own way," explains Colnar. "Each one has its own boss who is in charge of its own assets, meaning they can themselves choose the technology providers. As a result we have a multitude of information systems within the government, which are still not connected."
Colnar says there are some exceptions - the e-vem portal, for instance, which does feature inter-connectible data sources from various ministries - but that in general there is still little improvement. He believes the solution is centralisation.
"In such a small country I'm a supporter of [what is regarded as a] curse word: centralisation. Today, a desktop computer is enough to manage a state register of a two-million country. The problem is organisational. The law on government could solve it."
To the centre
Colnar agrees that there would be no gain without pain. A thorough, central concept set at a basic level would inevitably hurt certain individuals within the administration as well as the outsourced businesses who provide and maintain the various technologies. Still, he says, rationalisation wouldn't have to mean layoffs.
"There is a constant lack of IT experts in the country," he says. "Some thirty years ago when computers began to take over, people panicked about losing their jobs. So rather than mentioning any effect on staffing, I would promote lower costs and better service, better solutions and better provision of common projects."
Asked whether it is possible to know the number of IT experts directly or indirectly employed by governmental institutions, he mentions some 5 percent of 17,000 office staff are IT experts. But he can only estimate. "We could easily come up with a number if there was a centralised information system for all ministries," he suggests. "For the same reasons we find it difficult to give exact answers to how much money is spent for certain governmental projects."It's a situation which Colnar and many others believe must now change.